“O What A Day! What a Lovely Day!” Yes, It Surely Is.

There is a moment in Mad Max: Fury Road, as the War Rig tears through a treacherous mountain passage–driven by Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), bearing its precious cargo of five escaped “breeders” in search of the “green place”, joined by one hell of a strange bedfellow in the titular Mad Max (Tom Hardy), and beset upon by re-amassing war parties and rock riders burned by a sour deal–when the music swells in time with the breakneck action, the fury of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and his half-life war boy army bearing down on a crew that seems too fragile, too few, and too fragmented to survive.

It is not the first time the music rallies around the life-or-death mayhem of this epic, two-hour-long car chase–no, Immortan Joe’s war party even comes equipped with its own “sonic carmageddon” (to use Warner Bros’ phrase): a war vehicle piled high with speakers and drummers and a bungee-cord-suspended “doof warrior” up front, sightlessly stirring up troops from the Citadel, Gas Town, and the Bullet Farm by relentlessly riffing on his flame-thrower guitar.

But by the time the music swells again in that mountain pass, you either understand what this movie is–an opera; a ballet; a joyous rush of sound and visual spectacle set to the simplest, most intricate theme on Earth–or Mad Max is not for you.

Its context is straightforward, but also hauntingly vivid: A water-starved Australia yields a tyrant whose control of that resource allows him to treat everyone as property–to indoctrinate young men into a war-mongering death cult; to turn O-negatives into “blood bags”; to use women for milk, or else to birth him a “perfect” child. At the behest of Joe’s “wives”, our one-armed heroine, Furiosa, uses her powerful position as lead driver on an oil run to launch an escape attempt in search of her motherland. Half-lifer Nux (Nicholas Hault), a proud driver in his own right, almost misses the pursuit because of his declining health–but by strapping his “blood bag” (our nightmare-ridden hero!) to the front of his souped-up Chevy Coupe, he unwittingly thrusts himself and Mad Max into more than harm’s way.

Rarely do I get to say that a given film never misses a beat, but in the cascading aftermath of Furiosa’s actions, Fury Road routinely sets up what would become predictable stereotypes in other movies just to knock them down. Consequently, between all the unexpected “stillbirths” in theme as in plot, the range of ingenious approaches to car-on-car offensive and defensive manoeuvres, and the immense amount of real-life stunt-work (the pole-cats! the old lady biker gang! the doof warrior!), I have difficulty seeing how anyone would find this film dull.

Is the film violent? Of course! Are there explosions galore? Absolutely! And in director George Miller’s hands, it all just adds to one hell of a show. But the real surprise–for those whose interests might not be piqued by the automotive flourishes and the gun fights and the grotesqueries and the mass destruction alone–is also its humanity. Here is a film that sacrifices nothing, nothing in the way of human complexity to achieve its high-stakes sensationalism: not among the sex slaves, not among Immortan Joe’s adult children, not among the half-life war boys desperate to be witnessed as they attain Valhalla in combat.

To see a film that exalts large-scale violent struggle without diminishing the distinctness of human life therein leaves me stunned. I’m not just compelled to wonder how a film like this took so damned long to make; I’m also wondering how the hell I can go back to the usual cadence of action films from here on out.

Thankfully, I won’t have to worry about that issue too much until after at least my second viewing of George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road–a film that takes the term “thrill ride” to new cinematic heights and leaves it there, well out of easy reach.

On Anger

A few weeks ago, I started writing poetry again–a reaction, I suspect, to some especially upsetting items in the news, and the almost unfathomable levels of suffering to which they alluded. At the same time, I began accepting the return of one very specific feeling for what it was–anger–though its specific causes were not clear. Or rather–there were too many for me to pin down.

Anger is a surprisingly complicated emotion. Its hot-blooded extremes can make it seem too overt for subtlety, but to scratch the surface of someone angry is to find myriad variations on a theme, including: inarticulate rage, disorientation, fear, despair, and an enabling or disabling awareness of injustice.

Some forms of anger, it therefore follows, are more constructive than others. The anger that freezes you is less useful than the anger that stirs you to action–unless that action might be ill-advised, in which case maybe a little immobility is superior, so long as one can articulate its existence and cause. Absent both the ability to act and the ability to recognize the issue, though, it’s difficult to see how anything but deeper emotional schism ensues. Certainly, I imagine many people live their lives this way, with their anger “bottled up”, but not without some secondary toll being taken on their health, relationships, or livelihoods.

From an artistic standpoint, Byron offers a perfect example of useful anger. After receiving a scathing review of a dull poetry collection, he was so agitated that neither a good dinner nor a bottle of claret could settle him. What did it take to restore his spirits? Why, writing a poetic invective, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, which proved clever enough (in its passionate derision of major writers and critics) to win him new friends among their number, and from there on out, to begin a career of much stronger, more aesthetically distinct and cohesive work.

The ideal, in general, is for anger to give rise to greater action–but of course, this is difficult to accomplish if the seat of that anger is not readily apparent. For myself, I have difficulty even classifying the species of anger I currently feel–helplessness? rage? grief? moral fatigue?–and because it seems provoked by a wide range of day-to-day situations, I sometimes feel like the thread of its causality becomes harder and harder to source.

What becomes necessary, then, is to learn ways to sit with my anger, the way one might a child mid-tantrum, acknowledging its existence without necessarily trying to rationalize one and the same. What does it mean to be angry? How does anger inform my interactions with the world? Can I mitigate those interactions even without understanding why they happen in the first place?

It’s hard, when reflecting on this theme, to avoid the simple fact that anger was a staple in my childhood home: Anger at perceived betrayal. Anger at perceived personal failure, and the perceived failure of others. Anger at various societal slights, great and small alike. Anger as an excuse to lose control. Anger as a way of wielding power over other human beings.

I grew up fearing anger. My younger sisters and brother often embodied it outwardly, while my greatest anger turned inward–and still does, more often than not. In a bitterly ironic twist, I’m also fully aware that I provoke the most outward anger from others in my relentless fear that I’ve angered them.

Suffice it to say, then, that this legacy of anger is something my siblings and I still struggle with today, each in our own way–and as difficult as I find my own struggle, I feel especially for that of my sibling with three children: her ongoing fear of revisiting a difficult past we all shared upon the next generation.

I forward the following example just to illustrate how scattered and far-reaching the consequences of unchecked anger can be. My father is a human being whom I love very much, and whose humanity I feel I much better understand as an adult myself. I know just how much pain he was in while the kids were growing up, and I simply wish to illustrate, from personal experience, how strongly the phrase “hurt people hurt people” rings true.

To this end, in grade seven I brought home a permission slip to take violin class. Permission slips were usually a tense affair, as money was tight and my father vehemently opposed parents being asked to shoulder any trip-related costs, but this one simply required a signature. I thought it would be different.

My timing, however, was lousy; my father had had a bad day and he responded to my request with an anger that quickly bordered on incoherence: *He* hadn’t been able to take violin classes, his hands were too big for the instrument, and I was spoiled–so spoiled that I didn’t know the value of hard work and instead let people just exploit me for free labour. Didn’t I understand yet that people couldn’t be trusted, people would always screw you over, and the only one you could ever count on was yourself?

I had just come home from volunteering with a wonderful child, Latoya, whose overworked single mother couldn’t provide her with the advocacy she needed to get testing for the learning disability I quickly realized she had. Instead, this bright, inquisitive girl had to put up with her teacher *literally* asking if she was “stupid or something”, while I got to attend a gifted program in large part because my parents had pushed for it, and because other, more affluent parents made sure such programs existed for their special-needs children in the first place.

I was acutely aware, in other words, that the education system favoured students whose parents could advocate the loudest, and–as a white child in a low-income, high-recent-immigrant neighbourhood predominantly populated by persons with ties to the West Indies–I had also come to realize that ethnicity had a lot to do with expectations for “escaping” lower-income beginnings.

But I also understood that my father had been deeply hurt by something–or someone–and that this latest disappointment was just another in a line of hard knocks. I didn’t know what his disappointment was at the time, but it had already impacted me in the form of that speech, which I took to heart inasmuch as I realized right away that violin was off the table: too much risk of my father resenting me for doing something he hadn’t been able to do. I didn’t bring up the form again, and my father didn’t ask.

It took a very, very, very long time before I could share an accomplishment without my achievement becoming a reminder of perceived personal failure on my father’s part, and more often than not the lead-in to an angry speech about the world. But we’ve managed it, with a lot of effort and wry humour, and it’s now a great joy to be able to tell him when I’ve published a short story, say, or made concrete progress as a doctoral candidate.

I can’t ever forget that the original feedback loop existed, though–especially when, for all that my father loves me, anger is a legacy both he and my mother left me. Its patterns, its triggers, its capacity to spread indiscriminately, spring-boarding from one issue to the next: to recognize the existence of anger in me today is to remember how quickly a wildfire can arise from a single spark–and very much did, often, when I was growing up.

So–I know I’m angry. I know it’s an anger that flares up when I see the news, but also when I see the pettiness and careless harm people inflict upon one another every day. I’m angry with myself, too, because I’m not precisely where I’d like to be, but also don’t know precisely where I want to be. I’m angry because of all the harm that will never find easy resolution: all the waste in my own life, and all the hardship it’s caused others to date.

And yet–my anger brought me to write poetry again. My anger actually informs quite a few writing projects on the go right now, and my general desire to become a better writer–to relearn how to write in order to tell the stories I want to share. So while the sheer fact of my anger isn’t going to resolve everything, I do also see indications that it can be put to meaningful work.

The difficult trick (I’m finding) is not to rest on one’s laurels where this meaningful work is concerned. In that iconic upbraiding of mainstream media, Network (1976), Howard Beale famously declares, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” At first, it’s enough just to get his viewers to echo the sentiment–to shout out their windows that they’ve had enough of the system as it stands. But then this protest, too, becomes incorporated into the machine he’s trying to transform–a catch-phrase that instead improves network ratings, and no longer acts as impetus for genuine change. In this way, the movie offers a poignant reminder that any act of resistance can come to reinforce precisely that which one seeks to resist.

Often I seek to resist my anger, to pretend it doesn’t exist, because anger scares me. Anger should scare me, and plenty of other people besides, since anger can have rather deistic overtones: It can all too easily become a “higher power” to which we cede all capacity for calm and reflection in the moment, and which we generally employ as inner sanction for our worst knee-jerk and self- or communally-destructive behaviours.

But anger is also a tool, when used mindfully. It’s taken me a long time to feel comfortable acknowledging that, in many ways, I am an angry person–but I am, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. The real danger lies both in denying anger’s presence in my life, and in pretending that such acknowledgement is enough. So long as I do neither, though, I think it’s safe to say I have a good chance–and tremendous opportunities, more so than many earnestly striving people come before me–to use my anger well.

May your own emotions enable the very best in you all.

This Girl Sure Isn’t on Her Way to Grandma’s House

I watched A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night on the heels of von Trier’s Nymphomaniac Vol. I, the latter a laughably on-the-nose and just plain dull film from a director whose work I usually “enjoy” (if that’s ever the right word). So! My heart especially sang at the pitch-perfect aesthetics of seduction and destruction played out in Ana Lily Amirpour’s 2014 black-and-white Iranian number. After two misfires, I’d finally found a film with something interesting, if subtle, to say about sex and loneliness. (And no, Stellan Skarsgård’s fishing metaphors don’t count.)

To this end, A Girl is foremost a harmony of perfectly synched soundtrack, conscientious framing for juxtaposition and metaphor, and chiaroscuro, which together sustain a dreamy, lonely landscape pocked with oases of punk rock and the fickle promise of companionship. Like Let the Right One In, the film employs a lone female vampire, Sheila Vand, less to evoke jump scares than as part of a cast of strange and estranging figures, which here also include a junkie father, a lovelorn son, an entitled rich girl, a pimp in the classic order, an ageing prostitute, and a good little boy out too late with his skateboard.

The film essentially follows The Girl–a lonesome vampire in Bad City, unsurprisingly a hotbed of corruption–as she metes out idle fear and occasional justice in the streets. The film’s strength, however, comes from exploring predation in a wide variety of forms, and with considerable nuance. Early on, we meet a man whose addiction has made easy prey of him, and the son who becomes prey to his father’s dealer in turn. In a city where bodies are dumped in a common ravine, a woman’s sexual exploitation might seem mundane, but whenever we’re given images of power clearly aligned with one party, there always follows a doubling of these images in scenes where the tables are turned.

As the film negotiates its central romance, between The Girl and Arash (Arash Marandi), this negotiation of power becomes especially delicate. When they first meet, Arash is fresh from a costume party–“I’m Dracula,” he says, stoned out of his gourd, “but I won’t hurt you.” Vand’s subsequent gaze contains multitudes; she follows him along the sidewalk, as she has so many others to dire ends, but in the apartment where she takes him, he advances on her in a strong moment for the soundtrack.

Indeed, music is critical in this film; though characters come and go and dialogue is scarce, both its lonesome women shine when they dance, and The Girl’s apartment is enlivened by band posters. Moreover, every major beat in this film is accompanied by song, including Arash’s eventual discovery of something terrible involving The Girl–though in this, the film also takes after Let the Right One In, ultimately prioritizing companionship over most everything else in a difficult, lonely world.

The consequence is a film on the one hand stylistically commanding–beautiful on both audio and visual accords–but on the other hand, quite understated. There is no dramatic standoff, no aggressively escalating death count, so for all intents and purposes, The Girl’s vampirism becomes just one part of the character the director wants to show us: a woman with an inner life, as well as a range of outer ones. In its fundamental humanity, then, A Girl amply succeeds, and leaves me more than itching for Amirpour’s next, due out in 2016.

La petite mort: It Follows (from Sex, from Adulthood)

I have to admit, I had difficulty watching director David Robert Mitchell’s much acclaimed It Follows. The film offers many arrestingly beautiful compositions, but also spends an inordinate amount of time on rough foliage as seen from below. I enjoyed the soundtrack, but felt that it didn’t always match this low-budget indie film’s content. Many set design elements cohesively constructed a dreamy, teenaged-wasteland aesthetic, but I found most of the settings underused. The narrative transitions were also often stiff or needlessly protracted, which in turn left me feeling strung along by an unreliable narrator, always knowing more than he’s showing.

Similarly, I enjoyed the concept of the film: the idea of an entity that slowly, relentlessly follows someone under multiple guises until the pursued sleeps with someone else (and thus passes the STI demon on, though this only works if the newly pursued doesn’t get caught). However, I kept getting thrown by the changing monster mechanics: the “It” sometimes quick to catch up with its prey, but at other times conveniently delayed for days; sometimes stymied by doors (never windows) but wielding a force capable of knocking people through the air; and sometimes just abandoning its established passive style to suit the film’s need for more action.

These inconsistencies were difficult to align with a film that adheres to real-world physics where human reactions and consequences are concerned, yet which also plainly wants to advance a more symbolic reading of events as they transpire. Is this a film about the ramifications of having sex, as the means by which this curse is passed on suggests? Not really, because even though our protagonist treats sex with hesitation at the outset, her life-transforming encounter isn’t actually her first time at the rodeo.

Is it a film, then, about the disappointment of growing up, as suggested by speeches about the broken promise of adult freedom and being envious of small children? Maybe. Maybe “It” is the spectre of death that awaits us all, or at least the “little death” that dogs our realization that even getting what we always wanted is not as earth-shattering as we might once have dreamed. If so, it’s a wobbly metaphor: Some people in this film get brutally murdered by that realization, and only so long as such terror is passed on or evaded by its latest victim can the rest of the afflicted find peace.

I’m torn, then, on the film as a whole. It has its technical weaknesses (and strengths, granted), but on this thematic level–the question of whether It Follows forwards a nihilistic view on life, or simply an elegy for lost youth–I still find myself haunted by what I’ve seen. I’m especially struck by how much restraint is shown in the script: We even have one character reading twice from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot on her clamshell e-reader, as if to drive home the film’s overall fixation on the horror of suffering and one’s eventual loss of self–but far from these scenes proving abrasive, the severity of the excerpted text is undercut both times by its young reader’s goofy, unassuming mannerisms.

As a horror movie, too, It Follows definitely pulled off a few jump scares, and although I was exasperated by certain characters’ poor decisions and our camera’s selectivity at key points, the film undoubtedly built tension. Moreover, our monster works well even when we’re not allowed to see “It” (that is, when we’re not cinematically aligned with the protagonist). In fact, these empty spaces might even be better for sheer dread-value than the creepy figures we later see, because It Follows bears closest resemblance to its schlocky slasher forefathers when we’re watching hyper-sexualized dead women, old women, distended men, and Gollum-esque children lurch in silence toward our protagonist.

Is It Follows worth seeing, then? I’d say it’s a fun little experiment with some haunting and memorable visual choices. But as much as I’m left musing over ideas of loss and disaffected youth in its wake, I’m already starting to feel like this film is another Virgin Suicides: a work that wants you to believe that something deep and ineffable has just transpired, but which doesn’t do nearly as much of the work as promised to get you even halfway there.

On Re-Learning How to Write, How to Think, How to Be

At one of my workplaces, a client routinely presents the staff with unsolicited “important reading material”. These long, formal letters, addressed to third parties but cc’d for our attention, implicate major news events and miscellaneous personal encounters in a vast campaign of human rights violations visited upon the author over the last quarter century. By her own admission in these widely disseminated letters, the author was diagnosed at the outset of this campaign with paranoid schizophrenia, removed from her position, placed on disability, and hospitalized–all actions that confirmed for her precisely how far major institutions were willing to go to silence her over the data she was gathering on government schemes.

As one might surmise, I don’t recycle these letters immediately, though there is a certain kindness to just politely accepting and then disposing of such troubled material. I don’t skim through these materials to scoff at the author, though. Rather, I even make the mentally precarious choice of going through some of these letters with a highlighter, noting key passages and turns of phrase, before putting them all to rest.

Now, some might say that’s a writer’s instinct–a fascination with the rhetoric and vernacular of a person so intent on rationalizing the irrational, on writing and rewriting their personal narrative in every possible light in order to make sense of it all. This would, however, be a superficial read: If anything, these letters–in their eloquence, precision, and overall cohesion–blur the line between “madness” and the compulsion experienced by many writers considered “sane”–the drive, that is, to narrate trauma (personal, societal, environmental) into something restorative, something clarifying and coherent and maybe even edifying.

In other words, I actually find this author to be an intelligent, well-read person; between wild assertions about vast conspiracies, she moves effortlessly from historical to philosophical to literary to academic reference–a wealth of critical knowledge in this case turned horribly against her ability to perceive excessive pattern recognition for what it truly is. If only for this reason, then, I find something in her mental health struggle–relentless, myopic, and with such an acute awareness of women’s history (especially regarding institutionalization as a means of social control)–that resonates well beyond the extreme conclusions she draws about the world around her.

(And yes, her conclusions are extreme, including the existence of a secret UN code conveyed by her dentist, the pain in her teeth affirming Canada’s complicity in global human rights violations; a system of signals that makes a past employer culpable in the mass murder of young women; speeches by past PMs meant to impart coded awareness of the vendetta against her; a university plot to partner her children with entirely the wrong sort of people, making for mediocre marriages and impacting the wellbeing of her grandchildren; covert meetings with UN representatives at her convenience store; and a secret text left by a famous philosopher’s family for her alone to find and read.)

Indeed, the overall thrust of her argument is belief in a coherent, far-reaching order to the universe. It’s an order working against her, granted; one at every turn striving to suppress her work, isolate her from her communities, and otherwise besmirch her good name with mental health labels–but an order just the same. And so she reacts to it by ordering her thoughts as systematically as she can–suggesting, perhaps, a persisting confidence that, even if the world is out to get her, it is doing so through a level of organization that can still be defeated by organization–that is, the correct ordering of words and narrative constructs–in turn.

In reading her work, then–and I call it “work” because the writing, tragically, is every bit as methodical and rife with citation as any academic article I’ve read as of late; a testament to a brilliant mind trapped too far down the rabbit hole of theoretical constructs I encounter in my own studies–I’m left with two reactions. The first is a sense of there but for the brain’s diverse neural quirks go I, while the second is the emergence of troubling questions: What narrative loops might I be trapped in, likewise without realizing it, having relied too long on certain systems of thought? Where might I be spinning my wheels in place, under the misguided belief that, with enough retelling of certain stories in new contexts, the truth will eventually out?

The Stories I Tell

I find myself ruminating on the folly of doing the same thing over and over, either on compulsive autopilot or out of the genuine belief that the result is sure to be different next time, or the time after that, or the time after that, because in the last two weeks I have had to come to terms with the fact that my writing is simply not up to snuff. Put a gentler, more bureaucratic way: I have insufficiently grown to meet the evolving demands of my stories–whether they be academic, fictional, or personal.

For the purpose of successfully conveying my dissertation research to my committee, I thus have to re-learn how to write academic work. For the purpose of doing right by the ideas I want to wrangle with in fiction, I likewise have to re-learn how to write with an attention to detail and character that is most certainly not lacking in my day-to-day experience of the world.

But above all else, for the purpose of being simpatico with the forms in which I’m writing, I need to re-learn which stories are the stories I want to tell, which stories are worth telling, and which stories are not, in some sense, simply acts of self-erasure.

This should be easier than it seems, especially when one of my jobs–at a local bookstore–offers incessant reminders that, in the long run, nobody else is really going to care; in the long run, the world is full-to-bursting with excellent and mediocre writers alike, with so many from each category achieving their moment in the spotlight and then finding themselves remaindered, forgotten, past their prime. But somehow the reminder that I am, ultimately, writing only for myself makes this situation harder–because what I have come to realize is that there is something worse than aimlessness in what I write: There is cowardice, and a refusal to be fully present in my own stories, my own texts.

Indeed, Mark Doty’s words, which have followed me through many of my greatest hardships, seem indelibly writ upon the bone at times like this–“We all have reasons / for moving. / I move / to keep things whole.” And to be fair, I have as of late tried to confront this cowardice directly, to centre it in the stories I tell. But there is something about even this effort that only exacerbates the problem: Is it to cowardice and absence that I really want to dedicate my time and literary output?

As a teen and very young adult, I focussed on sincerity in my poetry–openness seeming fundamental to good work. Whether that was wise or misguided, in fiction it never really translated; the aversion to being seen as “writing from life”, when I so dreaded the thought of being reduced to my personal struggles, yielded minimalist prose. I had my Carver period without ever quite grasping the nuances of Wolff or Rash, followed by a love of Iris Murdoch that often matched lean prose with pointed moral indictments of characters who, simply by struggling to be good, thought that they were good. (Thank goodness I hadn’t read any George Eliot at that time, or the novel I wrote then, about a set of characters with competing self-delusions, would have been an even worse screed against human folly.)

I knew neither style would “sell” (not in my hands, at least), but the more damning conceit, really, is that I continued submitting such work even as I read plenty of contemporary fiction and disliked most of it. I especially hated the telegraphing flashbacks that made up the bulk of contemporary short fiction, character motivations spelled out in lush, self-centred sentences instead of illustrated through forward momentum. I wanted stories that followed seamlessly from a given thesis, such that all ensuing events were simply compelled towards an inevitable end. I even tried to sell a novel written in such a sparse register (a terrible attempt to merge my aesthetics with Canadiana, in the form of a Northern Ontario bildungsroman that treats its protagonist harshly for her naive expectations of life) and only after over fifteen literary agents didn’t even deign to reject the work did it strike me that I needed to master short stories first.

So I wrote plenty of short stories, in a wide range of forms, but only made progress with science fiction. Even then, I have been mindful of my slings and arrows therein: I’d get accepted somewhere, and then find it even harder to submit to that place again, gripped with a cold-sweated conviction that the first acceptance was just a fluke, and I’d soon enough be found out for the hack that I was. (And this, despite the fact that I have full enthusiasm even for negative reviews, which is most of what I’ve had to date; I welcome the opportunity they provide for self-reflection and improvement, so the disconnect is puzzling.)

Regardless, I’ve had plenty of silly periods. I once staunchly declared a commitment to mediocrity on the path to eventual improvement (and if not for this, granted, likely wouldn’t have submitted as much work in the first place). I also openly gave up submitting literary/mainstream/general fiction a couple years ago, which doesn’t at all account for the (futile) fact that I have literary/mainstream/general fiction in submission queues today.

And then there were times when fiction was painful–when the very idea of writing was intolerable, ill as I was, or when the only writing I could do focussed on a limited range of emotions and experiences, particularly around self-erasure. Those are sad times to reflect upon, even as some of the work I wrote therein did in fact sell. However, I was treading water myself–at best–and as such have an excuse for creative stagnation then.

I don’t want to be treading water anymore, though. I need to keep growing, and that requires taking stock of the storytelling routines I’ve clung to for so long. For three years, for instance, I worked on a story about fence-sitting, and with it, the trouble with storytelling itself. In part, I knew all along that this intended novel was an indictment of myself, and uneasily noted the number of short stories written in the same time period that, in one way, shape, or form, negotiated similar themes of passivity, indecision, cowardice, and misdirected energy.

Recently, I had to let that story go–its protagonist, always intentionally passive, ultimately too passive, in too didactic a narrative, for the piece to warrant further investment of time and energy. It’s a loss, to put aside a world in which one has dwelled for so long, but I keep hoping I can make it constructive in the end–by recognizing what the story’s failure is telling me.

What Things Might Come

Frozen, afraid to act, afraid to move forward in case my moving forward causes harm: the recapitulation in fiction of my own follies, while not surprising, is certainly a bit difficult to accept–not least because self-awareness on this accord poses difficult, but obligatory questions about next steps. Specifically:

Do I continue writing the stories that are most familiar to me–and yet also, the most easily suffocated (stylistically, structurally) by my desire to keep up a wall between myself and my fictions?

Or do I learn to write stories that depict an approach to life entirely unlike (and surely better than) the one I know best?

This second option raises its own questions of cause and effect: Can I write such stories–genuinely, compellingly–without first re-learning how to be? Or would one act (gradually) come to inform the other? Over time, with considerable commitment, could the writing of such stories effect changes in my own approach to life?

No, I don’t ask such questions imagining a saccharine story of personal transformation through dedication to more uplifting fiction. Quite the opposite, in fact: I am a creature of Dostoevsky, not Tolstoy; human frailty, madness, eccentricity, and survivable (if not surmountable) failure are all more kindred to me. And so it simply frustrates me that, for all the intimacy with which I’ve known these gradations of the human experience, I haven’t yet learned how to write on them–in any form–with the honesty, compassion, and fullness of feeling they all deserve.

But at least I know now what I do not know. And difficult as I know this next leg of the journey will be–breaking down all my familiar archetypal turns, all my surefire narrative crutches, and allowing vulnerability and compassion (not criticism) to coexist on the page–I am ready to learn.

I have to hope that will be enough.

“Failure of the Genetic Code”: On the Choice Not To Have Children

I finished Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids just as a harried mother and her children rushed from a taxi to meet an intercity bus that, as it turned out, was running late. Within seconds of her asking if she’d missed her connection, the two boys–six and nine respectively–were chatting with me as well, the youngest especially eager to share what he knew about hybrid electric cars and his desire to be an engineer when he grew up. As we waited, the fretful mother tried to get her eldest to put his hood up against the cold, but he had gel in his hair and didn’t want it mussed. The younger of the two, keenly observing his older brother, had no gel but followed suit when she tried to get him to so much as put his jacket on; as he declaring through chattering teeth, his ears were “just perfect the way they are.” Instead, the two boys debated what the intercity bus would look like when it showed up, the youngest moving from “I hope it’s a double-decker” to “keep looking for a double-decker” and the eldest insisting, “it doesn’t need to be a double-decker; it just needs to be green”, though this didn’t stop him from twice chasing in front of blue-and-orange city busses that eased up to a neighbouring stop.

This mundane little encounter proved a striking reminder that to be around children is to engage in a very different set of conversations–ones that can swing in a heartbeat from coherent and forward-thinking to a battle of wills over life-preserving basics, like “don’t run in front of a moving bus” and “it’s below zero and drizzling: put your dang-blasted coat on.” I’ve been around a lot of children in my life–I love children–and engaged in hundreds of conversations with parents about their children and child-rearing in general. But Meghan Daum’s book was the first time I really felt like I’d been in lengthy conversation with “people like me”–people who have made the conscious decision not to have (or who have otherwise come to accept not having) children of their own.

What I didn’t expect from this collection was how lovely so much of the prose would be; putting aside the deep resonance I found in their content, many of these sixteen writers–thirteen women and three men–show a tremendous knack for weaving vivid personal anecdote into broader reflections on being childless-by-choice. I suppose that partly comes with the territory, though, because the book expressly addresses the intersections between choosing to write and choosing to be childless. Moreover, for some of these writers, it was indeed a binary choice: They felt that a woman can write (and even if she parents, be a lesser parent for it), or a woman can invest her physical and emotional energy in parenting, at cost to her literary ambitions. As Sigrid Nunez puts it,

Another fact hard to ignore: motherhood is one of the most significant as well as one of the most widely shared of all human experiences. In Western culture, it has always been essentially synonymous with womanhood. Yet who can name a major novel by a canonical writer, male or female, that takes motherhood for its main subject? (105)

There is some irony to this question, though, because I certainly thought of one book right away: We Need to Talk About Kevin, by the author of the preceding chapter–but I highly doubt that’s the kind of narrative Nunez suggests should easily spring to mind, if good motherhood and good literature could coexist. Granted, mother and acclaimed author Alice Munro is mentioned in this chapter, but Munro has serious regrets about neglecting her children when they were young in order to write, indicting herself as “hard-hearted”, while the mention of Anne Sexton brought to mind a book I read last year–Half in Love–by Sexton’s daughter, who struggled with her own suicidal behaviour in the wake of her mother’s manic depression and ultimate suicide.

Suffice it to say, the central lesson of this collection could be that all lives have their concessions–but since the concessions for each of these writers differ considerably, this book is more significant as a reminder that no two childless-by-choice people are exactly alike. Some in this collection, for instance, even came to their choice after becoming pregnant–after either wanting children in theory for years, or at least wanting to want children at some point down the road–and they speak plainly about the relief following their miscarriages and abortions.

Others never imagined (or wanted to imagine) children as part of their lives, and explore a wide range of explanatory factors, including: the idea of instinctive motherhood as a social (and therefore non-universal) construct, the flaws in modern feminism’s “you-can-have-it-all!” rhetoric, and the negative perceptions of children given to them by their own, utterly failed parents. Many also struggle to untangle the very fact of their broken childhoods, though they generally conclude that, since plenty of people who suffered growing up go on to have children, their own disinterest in bearing children is not an intrinsic result of past trauma. (It’s just a really messy detail that tends to exacerbate already tense conversations with people who press for reasons “why”.)

Lionel Shriver takes the most ruthless approach to justifying her childlessness–treating the decision as, yes, ultimately about selfishness; about being part of a Be Here Now movement that prioritizes personal happiness above all else, cultural consequences be damned–but other authors take stances that ring far truer to me. One (a gay man sexually active in the ascendancy of the AIDS crisis) relates his sense that children were a remote and bizarre luxury, part of an outlook on life that could only belong to people who felt they had a future themselves. Meanwhile, as Rosemary Mahoney puts it, parenting is the “hardest art”–inasmuch as truly understanding and feeling the agonies of childhood can make some of us wholly inadequate for helping others through it. To this end, she writes:

I’m strong in many things, but when it comes to children and their struggles I have no strength. I cannot stand to see a child I love suffer. When I see my teenage nieces and nephews cry because of some insult or slight or rejection, I feel a terrible cold pain that turns hot and then cold again in the span of a few seconds … I would not be able to let my child leave the house without a helmet on his head until he was thirty years old. … I would be unhinged by the dangers he faced and would be so overprotective I fear I would destroy him and myself in the process. (239)

Though my own bout of fatalism wasn’t driven by a belief in the inevitability of eventually contracting HIV, I certainly spent my adolescence and most of my twenties convinced I wouldn’t make it to 30 (next January!) due first to the PTSD from childhood incidents and then to the unmanaged downswings of bipolar II. And, yes, I have been thrown into powerful existential terror for my nephews on many occasions, haunted by all the hurts past, present, and future that I can do nothing to fix or prevent. And like M. G. Lord, whose chapter filled me with overwhelming relief that I wasn’t the only person for whom the perception of colour was literally diminished during severe depression, I recognize that I am “not a hypothetically perfect person but a flawed mess, who is trying, however inadequately, to leave behind a better world than the one through which I have had to make my way” (225). Like Lord, I hope to be a good mentor where I can.

The title of this post comes from my own experience of social pressures to conform, to have children, because it would “make me a better person” or was the “natural” thing to do. Like people in this collection, I’ve had a range of folks who didn’t know me try to tell me motherhood should be a priority in my life: cab drivers, hair stylists, bus drivers, trainee counsellors, store clerks, fellow students, and of course, family. When I was in my late teens, and firm even then in my view that I would not have children–that I would, at best, adopt–I occasionally fell into heated “discussions” with my father over this matter. To this person I love, both childlessness and adoption were nothing less than a “failure of the genetic code”–which, while true in the strictest sense, I now know how to counter by arguing for the value of passing on memes as much as genes, and invoking research around the idea of kin selection: that people without kids, by virtue of having more resources of their own to share, statistically improve the life outcomes of their siblings’ children (thus ensuring the passage of one’s genes in other ways).

Nevertheless, a lot from my childhood still informs my behaviour in negative ways, so I can’t pretend that my choice not to have children isn’t at least partly informed by my personal experience of mothers and fathers. As Michelle Huneven writes, “[e]ven as I learned that not all families were like [mine], I didn’t trust myself not to re-create what I had known” (143). I read that sentence over and over before pressing on in Daum’s collection, so true did those words feel to my own experience of growing up believing that familial love was intrinsically tethered to a profound lack of physical safety or emotional security.

This was not the only time, either, when I caught myself ruminating over specific lines in this book–so rich, so diverse, and so nuanced is this collection of personal narratives around writing and the sometimes simple, sometimes complicated choice to decline parenthood. I rarely read memoir, let alone promote it, but Daum’s Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed is one book I can already see myself placing in dozens of hands, hoping that the long-overdue sense of community I felt while reading it proliferates in a way I know I never will.

On the 2015 Hugos, and the Promise of Fantasy and SciFi

In the last week, the Islamic State took control of 90% of a Palestinian refugee district in Damascus, Syria, worsening an already dire situation for some 18,000 human beings trapped within. Meanwhile, 147 people were murdered by al-Shabab in Garissa University College, Kenya, while most of the Western world was busy rationalizing the killing of 149 passengers and flight staff by suicidal co-pilot Andreas Lubitz.

The world is filled with so much suffering, often in the form of such swift and large-scale destruction, that I often find myself taking stock of the relative security in which I live, and which allows me to pursue a teaching profession, to spend my days as a doctoral-level scholar, and to write: all with minimal risk to my personal safety.

This level of social security, and the benefits it has granted me, comes with an immense responsibility. This responsibility does not arise from any external, “objective” source; it is simply the consequence of recognizing the extreme preferability of my situation to the alternatives too many people live with every day–in my country as well as in the world at large. I’m speaking, of course, of alternatives that put people’s lives in routine danger, as well as alternatives that grossly restrict the mobility and related life outcomes of various human beings for reasons of sex, ethnicity, or other socialized difference.

Put simply, I know it’s in my best interest to see my level of personal security maintained, if not improved–which, in purely pragmatic terms, means extending that same security to as many other people as possible, so there will be less reason for anyone else to imperil mine.

However, when I learned about the “Sad Puppies” slate and subsequent Hugo nominees, I was struck by how deeply this notion of security differs for others who share the same relative security (overall) in my culture. For people like Larry Correia, Brad R. Torgersen, Vox Day, and John C. Wright, either the idea of science fiction and fantasy (SFF) stories having sociopolitical resonance is new, forwarded by people of a leftist bent who “just” write to forward personal agendas, or else SFF stories have strongly veered from a correct set of sociopolitical positions (right-wing, religious, libertarian) into “unnatural” and immoral messaging.

Either way, for these folks, and the fans who support them, personal security is very much threatened by champions of overt gender, orientation, and ethnic diversity in the discipline. As Correia writes of this year’s Sad Puppies slate:

This is just one little battle in an ongoing culture war between artistic free expression and puritanical bullies who think they represent *real* fandom. In the long term I want writers to be free to write whatever they want without fear of social justice witch hunts, I want creators to not have to worry about silencing themselves to appease the perpetually outraged, and I want fans to enjoy themselves without having some entitled snob lecture them about how they are having fun wrong. I want our shrinking genre to grow. I think if we can get back to where “award nominated” isn’t a synonym for “preachy crap” to the most fans, we’ll do it.

Breitbart writer Allum Bokhari similarly champions this movement as a cry for political freedom, describing the slate as

a tongue-in-cheek bid by science fiction & fantasy (SF&F) authors to draw attention to an atmosphere of political intolerance, driven by so-called “social justice warriors,” that is holding the medium back. Spearheaded by authors Larry Correia and Brad R. Torgersen, the campaign sought to break the stranglehold of old cliques by encouraging a more politically diverse group of fans to take part in the annual Hugo Awards.

I’m going to put aside these notions of a “shrinking genre” and the idea that female persons, queer persons, and non-white persons being nominated for and winning awards is “holding the medium back”. I certainly see no signs of anything but expansion for SFF stories–on TV, in literature, in blockbuster movies–but I can only assume that these writers are referring to something more specific: a perceived shrinking of certain kinds of SFF writing (which, again, probably isn’t the case, in the age of e-publishing especially, but might seem that way if the amount of other SFF writing is growing at such a grand scale).

No, my interest instead lies in how very much these folks–these human beings–feel as though their ability to write without fear of reprisal (especially for disseminating opinions of a condemnatory nature) has been compromised, and now requires social redress. Granted, I write this as a Canadian in full favour of our hate-speech legislation–and with it, the idea that “freedom of expression” requires checks and balances, as amply evidenced by humanity’s horrible tendency to forfeit personal moral imperative when presented with charismatic leaders (think Aldolf Eichmann and the banality of evil). Consequently, though I recognize the importance of being able to protest institutions that hold the balance of power over individual voices, the idea of freedom of expression being inviolable in a sustainably secure society holds little sway over me.

That said, the US has a markedly different climate where civil liberties discourse is concerned, with even gun ownership intrinsically tied up in notions of the right to resist government oppression (a right, in Canada, that doesn’t extend much farther in our official documents than freedom of the press and freedom of association). So the position of these deeply conservative (religious) writers remains fascinating to me, despite how absolutely repugnant I find most of the beliefs they wish to be able to forward without social challenge within the SFF community. Vox Day, for instance, is well known for his hateful rhetoric, so one brief example will suffice; as he wrote in 2013 of fantasy author N. K. Jemisin,

…it is not that I, and others, do not view her as human, (although genetic science presently suggests that we are not equally homo sapiens sapiens), it is that we simply do not view her as being fully civilized for the obvious historical reason that she is not.

Other views from this contingent are milder, but no less unsettling, and putting aside the anti-gay and related, religious-conservative social criticism that emerges on some of these writers’ blogs, there are also explicit insertions of such rhetoric in the nominated works themselves. This certainly accords with their claim that a “diverse” range of ideas is needed in the SFF community, but not with the claim that the primary aim of this movement is to return SFF’s focus from politics to good storytelling. For instance, John C. Wright’s Hugo-award-nominated Transhuman and Subhuman: Essays on Science Fiction and Awful Truth has this in its description, from Vox Day’s Castalia House:

In the sixteen essays that make up the collection, Wright addresses a wide spectrum of ideas. He considers the darker possibilities of transhumanism, provides a professorial lesson on the mechanics of writing fiction, explains the noble purpose underlying science fiction, and shows how the genre’s obsession with strong female characters is nothing less than an attack on human nature.

Even though the “strong female character” (reduced to being exemplary on the basis of one attribute; rarely allowed more depth than that) is an archetype I vehemently dislike, the construction of this sentence moves from the everyday to the extremely sensational, positioning its argument in a prescriptivist light that ever bends toward natural fallacy. The reasoning of the essay itself is little better; after a great deal of prescriptive discourse delineating appropriate male and female virtues, it takes as its argument that with egalitarianism there can be no romance, such that strong women require still-stronger men to spark any interest for the reader. And for those who might scoff at this romance requirement, the essay has rejoinder there, too, arguing that “girls who do not like love stories are well advised to learn to like them, because such stories deal with the essential and paramount realities on which much or most of that girl’s happiness in life will hinge.”

Who is the audience for a piece like this, if not the echo chamber of fellow conservative Christians? How does an essay like this engage in a dynamic, genre-wide discourse? I’m reminded of the works by John Eldredge I read for an Evangelical lit course in my MA year–books that suggested a restlessness with reality that compelled belief in epic adventure-quests (of an obviously religious nature, but with clear correlates to fantasy writing at large). While fascinating as cultural objects, they engage with an almost requisite insularity in their own positions, and no others; in this light, books like Wright’s don’t seem at all like a solution to the problem of sociopolitical exclusivity he and those like him claim to oppose in today’s SFF world.

And yet, the argument seems to be precisely that they shouldn’t have to be inclusive: that the ideas of people with morally conservative positions involving public proclamations of how others should and should not have sex, who is and is not entitled to full civil liberties, what major life choices other people should make, and how writers should present themselves in fiction or the world at large, must simply be accepted as equally valid. Clearly, the argument seems to go, the only reason that SFF works by such people aren’t getting more accolades is because their politics are not “in vogue”; because the genre is now filled with people who willfully ignore good storytelling in favour of political agendas.

And this argument is a damned shame, because it seems so diametrically opposed to the promise of SFF in the first place. After all, where but in the realms of SFF stories do we ever stand a better chance of testing our greatest visions–for better and for worse–of the world to come, of the world today, and of the worlds we’ve grievously forgotten?

In recent years, SFF has been exploring new possibilities, new frames of reference, new voices and settings and sociopolitical milieus. This seems to deeply upset the folks behind the Sad Puppies slate, but the rising interest, say, in Chinese science fiction or African fantasy is far, far less a threat to dominant Western narrative structures than it is an invitation–an expansion of the playing field on which we can all explore, and test, our most deeply held values and beliefs.

Rest assured, if those values and beliefs are worth their salt, they’ll survive the comparison with other narrative vocabularies. And if they aren’t, they won’t–but what good are such flimsy constructs anyway?

I read Vox Day’s Hugo-award-nominated story last year. “Opera Vita Aeterna” follows an elf with actual magical abilities who leaves his people to study scripture with an isolated monastic order, because he discovered that a member of that faith had greater magic than any he’d ever seen. After a great deal of padded theological discourse and not much else, he leaves an intricate new manuscript in his wake, preserving aspects of the community after a devastating fate befalls them. For me, the issue with this story wasn’t its clearly Christian politics; it was the poor storytelling. The problem wasn’t simply the purple prose, or how all the major plot points were pushed to the periphery; on a more fundamental, tension-building level, the elf’s decision to dedicate himself to these monks’ faith is never really questioned; nor is the supremacy of the monks’ god, even though we never see any overt sign of its superior “magic” in the text.

Recently, I read a short story in the other “camp” that fell equally flat for me, precisely because its politics were also self-evident, but the story was not. The protagonist in “Red Planet” by Caroline M. Yoachim is a two-dimensional argument for the equal-just-different value of being blind; instead of showing why undergoing surgery to pass immigration requirements to Mars wasn’t worth it, the story explicitly asks the question and then just as explicitly answers it. There are plenty of stories, though, that address topics like physical difference and societal marginalization without sacrificing character and plot development. In this vein, I know I’ve read good, clearly Christian stories, too.

Suffice it to say, then, I’d feel much more sympathy for writers who believe their religious and political viewpoints are unfairly keeping them from award recognition, if their writing could ever be apolitical. But it isn’t. It can’t be. For all the claims of simply wanting to focus on “good storytelling”, we routinely (if in often unexpected ways) reveal ourselves–our interests, our perspectives–in our fictions and essays.

By all means, then, bring religious (and political) points of view unapologetically into one’s writing: Hell, I’ve routinely got religious characters in my works, and I’m an atheist. In fact, I see no conflict between those statements, because one of my major drives is to present opposing points of view as best as I can in my writing, and I can imagine no better testing ground for my beliefs (on any subject!) than an ideological arena that a) draws from as wide an array of potential counterpoints as possible, and b) employs only the strongest possible versions of all opposition therein.

This, for me, is the tremendous potential of the SFF world, so without trying to impose this view on others, I would simply say that this stunt with the 2015 Hugos is predicated on a search for the wrong kind of security. What we need is more fearlessness about our personal convictions in the public sphere–yes, absolutely–but that fearlessness needs to start with more introspection about our own work first, and an honest examination of whether it upholds the very values of free, dynamic discourse we’ve also come to expect–lucky, lucky people that we are–should just be handed to us by the world at large.

That said, best wishes, good voting, and rigorous writing to you all!